New Study Reveals Eight Leopards Remain in Israel

A recent study, conducted by a Tel Aviv University Zoology Department master's student, reveals that eight leopards remain in Israel, two of them in the Judean Desert.

The study conducted by Inbar Perez was intended to provide the Nature and Parks Authority with information to help preserve the leopards, which have been in danger of extinction for years.

The leopards in Israel are of the Panthera pardus nimr sub-species, which was common in the past from the Negev and Sinai Peninsula to the Arabian Peninsula. Over history man hunted a great number of leopards and damaged their habitat. Less than 100 leopards are estimated to be left in the Arabian Peninsula (Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Oman) and in the rest of the region, including Israel, less than 50.

Unlike previous studies on leopards in Israel and the world, Perez did not follow the leopards themselves, or trap them to attach a transmitter to their body. These study methods are defined as invasive and might inhibit the leopard, which is used to living in isolation -it comes in contact with females only during courting periods - and keep a safe distance from human beings.

Hariton the leopard entered Kibbutz Ein Gedi twice recently, and was once spotted carrying off in his fangs a house cat, which he later devoured.

The documentary film "The Last Tiger," screened in Tel Aviv recently, follows the tracks of the only leopard that director Yishri Halperin and zoologist Haim Berger believe remains in the Judean Desert.

Describing the leopard in the film as the last was inaccurate. Apparently there are two leopards left in the Judean Desert, Hariton and a female. Altogether there are eight leopards in the entire country, according to a new study from Tel Aviv University.

Perez's study is based on collecting genetic data on the leopards. With the help of the Nature and Parks Authority inspectors, she collected leopard droppings in the Judean Desert and the Negev, then analyzed the DNA in the droppings in Dr. Ofer Mokadi's laboratory at TAU. This enabled her to distinguish among the various specimens and provided data about their gender. Perez herself admits she did not manage to see a single leopard during the study.

Analyzing the information, which was based on 54 DNA samples from various sites, indicates there are now three females and five males in the Judean Desert and Negev. Perez' mentor, Dr. Eli Gefen, says this is not an absolutely accurate number of leopards, because the genetic analysis was based on statistic evaluation and there is also difficulty in distinguishing among leopards that bear great genetic similarity to each other. However, he says it is the best estimate conducted to this day, especially in comparison to studies in which only some of the leopards were followed. "Using this method in the future will enable us to know if the leopard population has increased or dwindled," Gefen said.

Apparently, leopards move from one region to another, because great genetic similarity was found between two leopards from the Judean Desert and one in the Negev. The leopards have very large domains in which they live, covering hundreds of square kilometers, and during the mating period the male wanders over great distances.

Zoologist Yotam Timna, who followed the leopards from 1986 to 1990, estimated their population at 10 to 20 specimens, more than there are today.

The smaller and more isolated the leopard community is, the greater its risk of extinction because the leopards lose the genetic differences of the large populations. Thus their vulnerability to infectious diseases grows, and their breeding success declines.

The genetic examination in the present study shows that the leopards are mating with their relatives, increasing the risk of physical defects or deficiencies in their breeding capability. Since Perez did not trap leopards, it is not known whether any of them have these flaws.

The small number of remaining leopards increases the fear that over time they will not be able to survive in Israel and will become extinct. To enable them to recover, the genetic difference among them must be increased, and this can be done by bringing leopards of the same sub-species to Israel and reintroducing them to nature.

But Perez notes that very few leopards remain of this sub-species, and it would therefore be difficult to find candidates to return to the wild in Israel. Breeding pens for leopards have been set up in the United Arab Emirates and Oman to enable reintroducing them to nature in the future, but as long as Israel has no proper ties with these states, it would not be possible to use their help to save the Israeli leopard. Even if this could be done in the future, the chances of success are slim. Perez notes that the return of wild animals raised in captivity to nature has a 38 percent success rate, and in the case of large predators like leopards, the chances of success are much lower.